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    Deeper into Elvis

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Elvis Presley (1935-1977), the King of Rock ’n’ Roll and a bona-fide movie star for 15 or so years of his four-decade life span, would have turned 83 today. And while most of his 33 theatrical films as an actor and/or concert performer glory in music, scenery, romantic pursuits and unchallenging storytelling, he remains relevant to our turbulent times when you take a closer look at the two Presley projects offered on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays. Certainly, Flaming Star (1960), a period Western with the resourceful Don Siegel in the director’s chair and authoritative co-stars in solid support, has more on its mind than serving as a jukebox entertainment. (Indeed, Siegel limits the tune load to just two!) According to Elvis Information Network essayist Harley Payette: “The movie’s plot revolves around Pacer Burton (Elvis), the half-white, half-American Indian son of Sam and Neddy Burton (John McIntire and Dolores Del Rio), a white rancher and his Kiowa wife. They live on Sam and Neddy’s Texas ranch with Clint (Steve Forrest), Sam’s white son from a previous marriage. The family has found an uneasy place in Sam’s white community, while still maintaining some ties with Neddy’s Indian kin. They’re basically happy until a war breaks out between the whites and the Kiowas that forces the Burtons to choose sides with tragic results. Clair Huffaker [who wrote the source novel Flaming Lance] and Nunnally Johnson’s script is actually one of the best I’ve ever seen at capturing the pervasive, natural, casual quality of racism. It does this far better than stuff like 1950’s Broken Arrow, and even John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960). The racists in Flaming Star are not all villains. They include not only the Burtons’ friends and Clint’s fiancé, but also Clint and Sam themselves. At one point, when Pacer is overly secretive, Sam complains that maybe Pacer is more than half-Indian. When Pacer is doing something of which his father doesn’t approve, he’s Indian. It’s a little line, but it demonstrates that even with his father there’s a little part of Pacer that does not fit in. Clint’s dialogue is sprinkled with these little bits of racism. At one point, he tells his father (out of Pacer’s earshot) that “an Indian will rob you blind if you let him.” There’s another scene where he almost seems as sorry for the man who shot his stepmother as he is for her until Pacer brings him back to Earth. None of these comments are meant to insult Pacer or any Indian in particular. They’re just unthinking bits of conversation. Unlike in Broken Arrow, there are few avowed racists who despise Indians just because they’re Indians. But there are even fewer whites who genuinely like or trust Indians. Even those who like Indians like Clint or his fiancée Ros (Barbara Eden) prefer the company of whites and distrust Indians. The scene where Elvis confronts the couple with this information packs such sting because Pacer genuinely loves both. We learn that Pacer and Clint are extraordinarily close brothers, who have never had a single fight in their young adult lives. Yet, in this confrontational scene, Pacer confesses a secret youthful passion for Ros that he has only previously expressed to his mother. Even the brothers’ extraordinary closeness is limited by Pacer’s racial heritage.” Presley plays this complicated and ultimately heroic character admirably, and the movie’s halting box-office performance (blighted by the success of the vastly more lightweight G.I. Blues also in theatrical play at that time) steered the singer – and more shamefully, his management – away from tackling serious themes in his subsequent output. 

    One year and three movies (1961’s Wild in the Country and Blue Hawaii and 1962’s Follow That Dream) later, Presley would be back in a more familiar groove. From addressing racism to promoting family values and battling corruption, Presley next put on the gloves of the Fall opener Kid Galahad (directed by Phil Karlson) as an ex-GI returning to his Catskills-area hometown of Cream Valley aspiring to be the local auto mechanic but instead getting detoured into becoming a pugilist by the hard-luck, hard-drinking, debt-ridden manager of a local boxing camp (Gig Young) and being personally trained by tough but fair-minded expert (Charles Bronson). He worked out with former world welterweight championship Mushy Callahan to prepare for the role, ably responding to the compressed training regimen due to his preexisting preoccupation with karate. Though more conventional in feel (it was based on a Michael Curtiz-directed Warner Bros. melodrama of 25 years prior that dealt with the mob’s infiltration of pro boxing), the film scores points for depicting a more inclusive style of redemptive down-home populism in the face of the divisive greed of money-hungry gangsters who would seek to KO the emerging fighter’s title shot. In Elvis Cinema and Popular Culture, historian Douglas Brode asserts: “For Presley, paradise…must be populist…thus all-inclusive. So Walter [Presley’s character] observes two signs: Grogan’s Gaelic Gardens is located directly across from Lieberman’s Resort. Though the Irish and Jewish hoteliers compete for guests, friendliness and tolerance abide. The film reflects Elvis; always, he wore a Star of David directly next to the cross that hung about his neck. While the civil rights theme is muted, the attitude is consistent with earlier projects. Though blacks have little screen time, when African-Americans do briefly appear in Kid Galahad – a sparring mate for Walter after he becomes a prizefighter, a full member of a Fourth of July party – they are accepted. What vividly characterizes the mobsters is that they are not portrayed as Italian or Jewish. Otto (David Lewis), the gang boss, speaks with a cultivated boss and appears Anglo-Saxon. If the gangsters represent anything, it’s the evil Big City Mentality, per se.” Beyond the singing, dancing and romancing of prime Presleys Flaming Star and Kid Galahad, there’s more to explore as you spin them on TT disc.